On paper, it was a tricky test for the Lion City Sailors, and Hougang United proved to be exactly that on Friday night (6 May) at the Hougang Stadium. 

Kim Do-hoon’s men ran out 4-3 winners in their first Singapore Premier League (SPL) fixture since returning from their maiden Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign, in a match that saw the Sailors cut open the opposition defence almost at will, creating one opportunity after another – but also conceding three goals of their own.

The Sailors’ Head Coach acknowledged the unusual occurrences he witnessed, but hailed the performance that saw his team pick up where they left off after an ACL campaign that saw the Sailors play six matches in 16 days.

“To come back, play well and get three points in our first match back after a tough schedule in the ACL, what more can I ask for?” said the 51-year-old. “Kim Shin-wook scored three, but it was a team effort and the goals came from great team play.”

Shin-wook was at his clinical best at Hougang Stadium, scoring his second hat-trick in Sailors colours, while Maxime Lestienne – who tormented the Cheetahs defence all night enroute to being  named man of the match – got the other goal on a night that could have seen the Sailors score more than just the four they managed. 

“On top of the three points, I’m very happy with our game management, the speed and tempo at how we play – it’s definitely better than what we have shown before the ACL campaign. It’s great to see the team developing, and we have to continue to work on these positives that we gained in the top-tier tournament,” he added. 

The Sailors were 2-0 up within the first 25 minutes and led by 4-1 even before the hour mark, before two late Hougang goals meant the affair finished much closer than it looked. 

It is a fourth straight SPL win for the champions and the Sailors are now unbeaten in six league games since the 1-0 loss to Geylang in March, as they carried the positive momentum from their ACL campaign onto the domestic front. 

The result saw the Sailors extend their lead at the top of the eight-team SPL standings to seven points, before nearest challengers Tampines Rovers and Tanjong Pagar United take to the field this weekend. 

The demanding Kim promised that his team will get even better from here on in. 

“We’re now being more creative on the pitch and creating more clear-cut chances, but looking at the number of chances we had today, we should have scored more,” said the South Korean.  

“The boys need to be more confident with the strength and technique they have – and this can only get better with training.”

With spectator limit now removed at SPL matches, it was a boisterous Hougang Stadium that greeted the teams, and the Sailors rose to the occasion – scoring after just 16 minutes. 

In a rapid move that started from Amirul Adli’s throw-in in a defensive area, the Sailors worked their way forward with Maxime striding onto Anaqi Ismit’s inch-perfect crossfield pass and producing a clever first-time finish past an onrushing Mukundan Maran in the Hougang goal.

This was Maxime’s third goal in a Sailors’ shirt. 

Eight minutes later, it was two with Maxime again involved. The Belgian created the initial danger down the left flank before Shin-wook reacted the quickest to a deflection, slamming home from close range.  

Hougang rallied and pulled one back in the 36th minute, with former Crystal Palace midfielder André Moritz slipping a neat shot beyond Izwan Mahbud from just inside the area. 

But the Sailors would restore their two-goal advantage three minutes before half-time, with Shin-wook gleefully nodding into an empty net on the goal line after Maxime’s shot was parried into his path. 

Seeing a header come off the post in the 54th minute, Wookie was not to be denied the match ball two minutes later. Once again, it came from a delightful team move with the irrepressible Maxime exchanging passes with Diego Lopes before lifting the ball to the back post for Song. The Singaporean could have shot, but instead squared across goal for Shin-wook to net his ninth league goal in 2022.

The goal means Shin-wook now closes in on the SPL’s current leading goal-scorer, Tampines’ Boris Kopitović, who has 11. 

There was no letting off from Kim’s charges even after that fourth goal and they kept piling forward to create chance after chance. However, some good goalkeeping from Mukundan and poor finishing meant that Hougang were still in with a shot. 

The Cheetahs would net two late goals, with Pedro Bortoluzo netting from close range while Moritz caught Izwan out with an opportunistic shot from range, but there was no denying the Sailors the three points on the night. 

This was the first time that the Sailors conceded more than one goal in a game in 18 domestic outings (including the AIA Community Shield) under Kim. Acutely aware that there is further improvement to be made, the 2020 ACL winner will look to fine-tune things on the training ground ahead of their next task – a home clash against Geylang International next Saturday (14 May). 

Geylang handed the Sailors their only loss in the SPL this season, in a gritty display of defensive organisation that the Sailors had no answer to.

“Now the challenge is internal – we must continue to fight against ourselves. It’s about how we can be more cruel to ourselves instead of being comfortable with where we’re at right now. We have to stay grounded and humble to maintain the tempo we showed in the ACL,” said Kim.

“Our next game is against Geylang who gave us the painful memory of our first defeat and we’re not going to repeat that this time.”